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What is Sauté? A Good Way to Enjoy Basic Crisp and Crunch

Written by Peter Allen on . Posted in food

“Sauté,” the most commonly-used word in every cookbook, is often misinterpreted as something else entirely — usually shallow frying or pan frying.

Its use has become such a routine that no one cares to know the difference, but sautéing as a cooking technique is unique and it requires you to understand what ingredients need to be sautéed and where this cooking method should be applied.

While the concept of sautéing is clearer in American, Mexican or European cuisines, it is not as distinctly identified in Asian or Middle Eastern cuisines. You can sautee practically any vegetable, grain or even fruit. For that to happen, ingredients should be sliced into pieces small enough to be completely cooked.

When it comes to sautéing, it is a quick and easy cook process which is best for lightly tenderizing the ingredients. It is not used for fully cooking, nor for the tenderizing of food items which are not soft. That is why sautéing is usually applied vegetables.

Many things should be taken into account when you sautee any part of your food: the sauté temperature, the use of fat, the utensils, and timing.

Why don’t we delve deeper into all these details and find out the right way to sauté and why you should be sautéing your food in first place. I am sure that by the end of this article you will be amazed that you didn’t even know the basics of sautéing.

What is Sauté? Read On as We Explore!

The word sauté in French literally means ‘jump’, hence the tossing of the ingredients in the pan. It employs dry heat cooking which is carried out in heated shallow pans. The ingredients are tossed and cooked in a small amount of hot fat, so it is mostly dry cooking.

The food is cooked in its own juices for a very short period of time. Sautéing can be used both for browning the ingredients or just for partial cooking. When the ingredients are tossed and cooked together, it gives off a unique blend of flavors and aroma as fresh as the ingredients themselves.

When ingredients are sautéed, they are cooked in the heated pan and the oil. This pan has to be shallow enough to cook all the ingredients in a single layer. This way, an even heat cooks each part of the meal without over burning or overcooking. With the non-stick pans and skillets available today, you can sauté everything with even a few drops of oil.

That’s why when you sauté anything it tastes lighter than when sear or pan fried. Speaking of which, people often confuse sautéing with pan frying.

This is again very normal for those who aren’t experts at cooking. Later in this article, we will be sharing some of the stark differences between normal pan frying and sautéing, but before that, it is important to find how sautéing actually works and what makes sautéed food special.

The key element of sautéing is that it avoids the overloading of the cooking pan. Ingredients are tossed in and cooked in a few minutes then transferred to plates or mixed with other ingredients. When there is too much food in the pan, it can cause uneven cooking, and ultimately bits of the ingredients turn bitter and dark. With sautéing you can set these worries aside.

Continuous stirring evenly distributes the heat to every part of the food. There is constant circulation of heat, flavors, and aroma in the pan while sautéing; this makes this cooking technique most tempting.

I personally enjoy when onions are sautéed and they give off their distinct aroma. Similarly, every vegetable has its own appealing aroma, which is released when they’re cooked in a shallow pan with less fat.

How Sautéing Works

Sautéing actually works by providing every ingredient of the cooking meal enough surface area to catch the heat. Unlike other methods of cooking like steaming, frying, slow cooking, pressure cooking, or boiling, the heat comes through a medium like water or oil.

But in sautéing, it is directly absorbed by the food and so no calories are added or lost in the cooking pan. Similarly, the food does not lose its nutritional value.

Sautéing works by employing certain cooking tactics. A combination of all of them creates the basics of sautéing; these are the principles which distinguish sautéing from other methods of cooking. Let’s follow them one after the other and find out how actually sautéing works:

  • Cooking in a single layer:

To sauté your food, always use a shallow pan to provide a greater surface area to the food. It has to be cooked in a single layer (or a double, in some cases). You will never see an overcrowded pot used for sautéing ingredients; the bottom layer will cook quickly while the upper layers stay raw.

So, a flat shallow cooking pan is excellent for lightly cooking the food in some oil.  Such a pan is first greased either with cooking spray or a drizzle of vegetable oil and then heated. Once hot, the ingredients are tossed in to cook.

  • Constant stirring:

It’s not like you can just toss in the ingredients to the hot pan and leave it to cook on its own. Rather, sautéing demands constant stirring of the food in the pan. That is because all sides of the food chunks should be cooked, so the stirring helps in mixing and flipping of the ingredients.

For that, you can either move the pan itself to and fro and make the ingredients jump in the pan as you see in cooking videos of the chef playing with vegetables sautés. At home, you need to do it carefully using a spoon or spatula.

  • Low Temperature:

One of the basic rules of sautéing is to maintain low temperatures for cooking. The low does not mean extremely low, but moderately low. Most of the recipes prescribe sautéing on medium heat, which is also fine. The fact is the heat should be able to match your pace of stirring.

On high heat, you would need to stir the food more often, but low heat gives you enough time to allow the food to cook from the inside out while you stir it occasionally.

I would recommend to first heat the oil in the pan on medium heat, and, once it is heated, reduce the temperature to a level where it would not cause overcooking of the food. Be extra careful about the sauté temperature.

  • Even cooking:

Sautéing works most effectively by its element of even cooking. As the ingredients are uniformly distributed in the cooking pan, every part receives the same amount of heat. This even cooking is great when you are dealing with lots of veggies in your recipes.

So, when you sauté, each ingredient is exposed to heat and gets cooked with direct pan heating. The use of dry cook method removes any agents which could lose heat. But the uniform cooking can only be achieved when ingredients are sautéed properly.

  • Partial cooking:

At no point does sautéing define the limit of cooking the ingredients. Most often it is employed during the early session of cooking every meal. it is only used to partially cook the ingredients like vegetables. This technique gives those ingredients an added texture and external firmness, which is later maintained when cooked using any other method and side ingredients.

The purpose of sautéing is more to cook the outer layer of the ingredients well. it saves them from getting soft and soggy through its partial cooking technique. Once there is enough glaze and shine over the sautéed food, more ingredients are added to cook them through simmers or boiling.

  • Crispy soft:

Unlike other methods where the food’s natural texture is completely transformed after cooking, sautéing maintains the natural form of the ingredients while releasing their aroma and flavors constantly. The way they are cooked, they turn lightly crispy on the outside and partially soft on the inside.

When you fry the ingredients, they turn fully firm and crispy, whereas with steaming or boiling, the food gets too soft and soggy. Sautéing, on the other hand, keeps the texture moderate. This is what I like about sautéing the most. I like the feel of the sautéed onions over my pizza or sautéed vegetables in my chow mein.

  • Chunks are cooked:

This method is not used to cook solid food items since you cannot stir while cooking a fish fillet or beef steaks; rather, ingredients are only sautéed when they are sliced or chopped into manageable pieces. To dry cook all the ingredients on low heat, the food should be in pieces so that it can easily be tenderized during this low heat pan cooking.

So, whether it’s meat or veggies, everything needs to be diced and sliced before getting started with the sautéing.

  • Non-stick utensils:

Another important thing to keep in mind to do the sautéing work successfully is to use the right kind of utensils. When you use a sticky pan with less oil to cook, the ingredients are likely to stick to the base, and it will create nothing but a mess, not to mention the food won’t even be cooked thoroughly.

So, whenever you sauté, take a nonstick pan, wok or skillet and a wooden spatula. The broader the utensils, the better the sautéing will be. Be comfortable using a wooden spoon for constant stirring. Grease the pan only with a teaspoon of oil or cooking sprays.

Pan-Frying Vs. Sautéing

In this section, we will be marking a clear line between sautéing and pan frying. Both cooking methods look almost the same, to the point that sautéing just seems like another name for pan frying, but in reality, this is not the case. Pan frying is a slightly different technique to cook the food. We can relate it to shallow frying, but it is not sautéing.

Pan frying doesn’t require stirring or limited use of oil for cooking. But sautéing does, and it is described as a dry method of cooking, so obviously you can not use oil as freely as when pan frying. Moreover, in pan-frying, you can cook solid food items without even chopping, but this can not happen when it comes to sautéing.

There are many other differences which make the two methods sharply distinct from one another and hence they should never be confused.

  • More Fat:

Pan frying is carried out in more oil or fat. This can be melted butter or vegetable oils. There should be enough oil to cover the lower surface of the ingredients in order to pan fry them. This is shallow frying of the food, cooked through the heat of the oil.

In sautéing, the oil is only there to lubricate the food, and it is cooked directly through the heat of the pan. For this reason, sautéed products always contain less fat content.

  • No Tossing:

Pan frying doesn’t demand much tossing or stirring of the food in the pan. Rather it is necessary to let the food stay in the oil for a while until it is cooked well. Whereas, a lack of tossing when sautéing food will cause it to get burnt or unevenly cooked as there is no excess oil to support the heat.

Constant stirring of the food is another striking difference between sautéing and pan-frying. You can apply any of these based on your needs. If its a diced mixture of veggies or meat, sautéing is a good idea, but when you are cooking seasoned steaks, crispy snacks or fish fillets, pan frying is a better option.

  • Lower Temperature:

The temperature set for pan frying is even lower than the temperature used to carry out sautéing. That is mainly because, in pan-frying, you can not rely on occasional stirring, so low heat is maintained to keep the food from burning from one side. However, to sauté, you can maintain medium-low heat to cook the meal while you stir it constantly.

Comparatively, high heat will not cause any burning in this case. As long as it is uniformly cooked, the food will turn out great. Consequently, it also affects the cooking time for both methods. Pan frying takes longer to cook the food, but sautéing is just a matter of 4 to 5 minutes for regular-sized servings.

  • Complete Cooking:

Pan frying is a complete method in itself which cooks the food up to its fullest. but sautéing is only for partial cooking of the food. As a result, the texture of the food obtained from pan frying is entirely different from the texture obtained after sautéing.

When you sauté the food, there remains some amount of stiffness in the texture not evident in pan-fried food. That is why sautéing is used as the initial part of every main course recipes, as it is not enough to cook the food completely.

Seared Vs. Sautéed

Searing is yet another process which is more related to pan frying then to sautéing. In a searing, there is also no tossing or stirring. Moreover, the food is cooked on low heat. But like sautéing, you use a small amount of oil for searing. This single fact makes searing different from pan frying.

When searing, you cook big pieces of meat like chops or steaks on both sides over medium heat until they turn golden brown. There is no stirring but only the flipping of the food.

Sautéed vegetables

One of the most popular appetizers. Sautéed vegetables go well with all sorts of delicious entrees; that is why from among all the sautéed recipes, we bring you the simplest and the most popular of them. It is important to learn all the steps.

Sautee the vegetables to get a good flavor and texture. The veggies are not only cooked with some oil, but they are also seasoned with basic seasonings. These vegetables are neither too cooked or nor too raw in taste and appearance.

Ingredients:

  • 1 tbsp. olive oil
  • 1/2 head cauliflower, broken into florets
  • 1 head broccoli crowns, broken into florets
  • 3 carrots, sliced
  • 1/4 tsp. kosher salt
  • 1/4 tsp. ground black pepper
  • 1/8 tsp. garlic powder
  • 1 tsp. sesame seeds, for garnish (optional)

Directions:

First, take a large non-stick skillet and grease it with olive oil. Let this pan heat over medium heat. Once the oil is heated, toss the broccoli, carrots, and cauliflower to the pan.

Start sautéing all these vegetables together. Add garlic powder, pepper, and salt while constantly stirring the mixture. Mix well for even seasoning of the vegetables. Stir cook them for 10 minutes until the veggies turn golden-brown in appearance. When done, transfer the vegetables to a serving plate.

Sprinkle sesame seeds over the veggies to garnish well. Serve immediately with warm tortilla or toasted bread or simply enjoy with your favorite sauce. Your every own pan sautéed vegetable is ready for devouring!

It is not necessary to always use this combination of vegetables for sautéing. You can add bell pepper, spring onion, garlic, ginger or any other of your favorite vegetables which can be cooked via sautéing. Make sure to cut them into pieces and then sauté them.

How to Sauté Food

If you have learned how to sauté the vegetables, half of your work is almost done. But there has to be a general method to follow whenever you sauté any kind of food.

The basic techniques of sautéing can be broken down into the following important steps. First, start by preparing the food for the sauté, then cook, then serve. Let’s jump ahead and find out how you can actually sauté your food with ease.

  • Chop Chop:

The very first step to the sauté is to prepare the ingredients for it. This means that you have to chop. If it’s vegetables, there are numerous ways to cut them up. Either dice them in cubes or cut them julienne. The thinner the sliced pieces, the lesser time it will take to cook the food.

Diced ingredients can be cooked easily in a few minutes. If it’s meat, fish fillets, or steaks, then slicing and dicing are both suitable options when sautéing them.

  • Prepare the Pan:

One the food is ready, look for a suitably-sized cooking pan. As I have said earlier, it has to be nonstick shallow pan or a wok which can carry all the ingredients and provide enough space to move them around while they are tossed and cooked together over some heat.

Once the pan is ready, put it on medium heat to preheat it. Preheating is important; if you add ingredients directly to the unheated oil, they will absorb the oil and turn soggy. Adding ingredients to hot oil makes them crispy and crunchy.

  • Preheat the Fat:

Once you’ve selected the pan and heated it, drizzle a teaspoon or tablespoon of cooking oil into it or simply grease it with a cooking spray. It is not necessary to use vegetable oil; many people sauté ingredients in butter or ghee.

Even bacon fats can be used to sauté anything. Ingredients like bacon sauté in their own fats so they do not need any additional oil or butter, other than that, you always need some amount of oil to stir cook your ingredients. Choose the fats as per your health conditions; it is always smart to use plant-sourced fats.

  • Add the Food:

Remember the food items you prepared earlier? Now it is time to put them to use. Start adding these ingredients. Normally onion is sautéed first along with garlic, and the rest of the vegetables are added. It mainly depends on the recipe of the food. But makes sure that you are adding ingredients as per their tenderizing capacity.

The ingredients which turn too soft on slight cooking should be added in the end. It takes 5 to 6 minutes to sautee food of regular-sized servings. When food is added to the pan, it is first left for 30 seconds to heat it through. Then you start the tossing and mixing of the ingredients. You can stir with a spoon or spatula or shake the pan to give it a stir.

Sometimes, the pan gets too hot for the sautee. To maintain the temperature, it has to be removed from the heat for few seconds, then put back. That is why chefs are seen raising the pans high in the air while sautéing vegetables or any other meal. This technique is good to keep it low on temperature.

  • Check the Doneness:

After 5 minutes of sautéing, you should check if the ingredients are done and al dente. If not, then continue to cook them for a minute or two. Take a piece and check if it is cooked thoroughly. It is important to keep the texture and look of the food appealing, but the taste is the actual aspect to consider here.

Undercooked vegetables do not sound good when you are doing a sautee. Plus, checking also allows you to taste the ingredients and adjust their seasoning accordingly.

  •  Drain the Oil:

When the sautee is ready to serve, it is transferred to the serving plate using a slotted spoon, so that any excess drop of fats are left behind in the pan.

If you further want to make your food fat free, place it over a paper towel. It will absorb all the excess oil if any at all is present. Do not use a paper towel for a sautee which is made out of sauces. You need to maintain the saucy texture of the ingredients in that case.

  • Enjoy:

With the sautéed food being served, the only thing left to do is to enjoy it with your favorite garnishing or toppings and the sauces. In a few minutes, you can enjoy such a refreshing mix of flavors simply by sautéing it all.

Benefits of Sautéing

With sautéing you can enjoy multiple benefits whether it’s the health advantages or the physical convenience of the cooking. Let’s find out more of the benefits of sautéing to understand its significance.

  • Low-Fat content:

Sautéed food contains less oil as it is cooked in only a small amount of oil. The low-fat content means better and healthier food for people already suffering from heart disease. For such people, sautéing is a healthy choice, especially when you use extra virgin olive oil to sauté the food.

  • No nutritional loss:

When food is cooked in nothing but a little oil, the nutrients of the food are not lost in the cooking liquid. The moisture, shape and nutritional values of the food remain the same even after sautéing.

Quick cooking keeps the food fresh and it also retains its essential nutrients and vitamins. Those minerals which are usually lost during long-duration cooking are also retained by the food in the sautéing. So, when it comes to health, we should definitely prefer sautéing to preserve all the nutrients.

  • Fresh and Appealing:

One of the things I enjoy most about the sautee is that each ingredient of the recipe remains fresh and appealing, especially the vegetables. The color of each veggie become more vibrant and tempting when they are cooked and glazed with a small amount of oil. Fresh spices are added, which infuses an aroma that has no parallel.

Sautéing means no overcooking, so the form and texture of the food remains firm and crispy. That is why you always sauté veggies to make fried rice, chow mein, or crispy toppings. I normally serve side sautéed vegetables with every meal, which makes for a better presentation.

  • Easy seasoning:

Seasoning a Sautee is not that complicated where you need to add several sauces, cooking liquids or spices, but sautéing can even be done without the use of such a combination of seasonings. When I sauté my vegetables, I only use salt and black pepper to season it.

These two spices are enough to enhance the taste of the sautéing food. Sometimes a drizzle of your favorite vinegar or lemon juice can also be used to enhance the flavor. Simply toss in the spices and mix well with all the ingredients, then stir cook for a few seconds and you are done.

Conclusion

Most recipes of exotic foods require that you sauté dishes. Now you know that sautéing is not mere pan frying of the ingredients, it is simple and quick and keeps the food fresh and full of nutrients. You sautee to partially cook the food and make crispy all sorts of recipes.

Vegetables are mostly commonly sautéed whenever they are added to meat or served as a side dish. It takes barely a few minutes to cook the food through sautéing, and once the food turns golden or slightly golden in appearance, the heat is turned off, and the food is served. Now all you need is to enjoy the meal to its fullest, with all its juicy crunch.

Peter Allen

Peter Allen

Peter's path through the culinary world has taken a number of unexpected turns. After starting out as a waiter at the age of 16, he was inspired to go to culinary school and learn the tricks of the trade. As he delved deeper, however, his career took a sudden turn when a family friend needed someone to help manage his business. Peter now scratches his culinary itch on the internet by blogging, sharing recipes, and socializing with food enthusiasts worldwide.

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